Black and white: a colorful Sinterklaas

How Zwarte Piet became the focus of this holiday

By Julie Albers & Mariel Navarro

Even if you are not completely acquainted with traditions in the Netherlands, the overflow of chocolate letters, pepernoten and candy bags in the Albert Heijn must have caught your eye. Unlike most children in the world, who are rewarded for their good behavior with presents and candy in December, Dutch children’s favourite holiday mostly takes place in November. These gifts are handed out by Sinterklaas, a character that travels to the Netherlands from the North of Spain in a steamboat. But recently, it is his minion who has been stealing the spotlight: Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

Zwarte Piet’s dark skin, red lips, golden earrings, colorful clothes and black curly hair have their historical roots in a 19th century Dutch children’s book. Originally called Pieter and associated with the Moors, he was introduced as Sinterklaas’ dark servant. Parents used to warn their children that if they misbehaved, Zwarte Piet would take them to Spain in his empty pepernoten bag.

As generations passed and more immigrants came to live in the Netherlands, this image of Zwarte Piet faded away. A friendly, charismatic side took over – Zwarte Piet became the smart assistant. From the moment he arrives until the big “presents night” on the 5th of December, Sinterklaas is accompanied by Zwarte Pieten who hand out pepernoten to children while waving and joking. Piet has also started appearing in popular tv-shows and movies produced especially for the festivity, such as the “Sinterklaas Journaal”. Nowadays, children are told his skin is dark because he delivers presents by entering through the chimney.

The current discussion is whether the character of Zwarte Piet represents racism. Allegedly, some black inhabitants of the Netherlands feel offended by his image and have even been called Zwarte Piet. The protests against Zwarte Piet started in 2011, when activist Quinsy Gario attended a Sinterklaas parade with a t-shirt that read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. He was consequently arrested for public disturbance. This unfortunate event stirred the public opinion and perception of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, and Zwarte Piet soon became the center of attention among Dutch politicians, artists and even the United Nations.

Although this debate flares up yearly, it was taken to a whole new level during the past few months. The Dutch government received a letter, supposedly issued by the United Nations, which condemned the figure of Zwarte Piet on grounds of racism. In the letter, the government was urged to modify this figure and to even consider abolishing the whole Sinterklaas tradition. This alarmed the Dutch even more and polarized them into two groups: those in favor of the modification of Zwarte Piet and those who wanted to preserve the tradition no matter what.

Zwarte Piet Illustration

Facebook played a key role in the discussion. Almost immediately after the letter was received, a page named Pietitie (literally: “Pietition, for Zwarte Piet”) was created which campaigned to preserve Holland’s most characteristic tradition. Within days, two million liked the page. People who signed the petition agreed to three points: they strive to preserve Zwarte Piet, stress that Zwarte Piet is not discriminating and that they want to continue portraying Piet with a dark skin.

But Dutch fury does not stop here. Some passionate Zwarte Piet-fans scold at opponents and tell them to “go back to their countries” if they cannot adjust to Dutch traditions. This attitude questions the degree of tolerance towards multicultural inhabitants. Is Holland at all willing to (partly) change a tradition, if it really offends people?

Unexpectedly, on the 25th of October, UNESCO’s Belgian representative Marc Jacobs clarified that the letter was actually sent by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and was signed by Verene Shepherd (the Chief Rapporteur). The Sinterklaas tradition had not been revised or investigated by the United Nations after all.

For internationals here at UCU, it is harder to understand the position and the importance of Zwarte Piet. Fellow Dutch students who have reflected upon the issue hold diverse opinions. One common argument is that as children, they did not associate Zwarte Piet with any particular race and consequently do not find it racist. For many of them, it is mostly the figure—rather than the appearance—that matters.  They say that to their childhood self “having rainbow colored or black or white Piets would not have made a difference.” So if his skin color does not matter to Dutch children, would changing it be a big problem?

Some argue that the discussion is not about Zwarte Piet himself, but the racism behind it. They find his position as Sinterklaas’ helper insulting. “We should not say racism no longer exists because we do not see it in our social circles,” one Dutch UCU student says. According to her, Zwarte Piet is, unconsciously, an expression of racism. Although she understands that this is a painful accusation, it takes only a bit of empathy to modify traditions and customs if they are making people around you feel uncomfortable.

To others, Zwarte Piet never has and never will embody racism. On the former Dutch islands Aruba and Curaçao, where a large part of the population is dark-skinned, the discussion about racism in Zwarte Piet surprisingly never arose. According to two UCU students acquainted with the islands: “It is just a tradition, and everyone knows that it is not meant to discriminate.” Although in Aruba Zwarte Piet’s original frightening image remains, the tradition has integrated into the culture of both islands to the extent that people paint their faces white to resemble Sinterklaas. The modification of Zwarte Piet, they believe, empowers racist people.

They feel that by changing a tradition that was not at all discriminatory, you are making it discriminatory. The small change would only damage their childhood memory and do little for the actual issue. The problem of racism is not Zwarte Piet; it is the people’s attitude. That is what should be changed.

In the meantime, Dutch children are completely unaware of the enraged debate and are as excited and nervous as every year. At the time of writing this article, the Court in Amsterdam has decided that Zwarte Piet could still be present during the parade. But his appearance changed a bit: no more earrings, different colours of lipstick and various hairstyles will be implemented. I wonder how many children will notice.



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